Mar 4, 2015

DVD Review: Before Nanook of the North, There Was In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

At the turn of the twentieth century, photographer Edward S. Curtis made his name documenting Native Americans, striving to preserve memories of a culture that he saw slipping away. Feeling these static images were not enough to capture the richness of native life, he turned to the new medium of film. The result is In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), a movie more documentary than drama, but still filled with excitement , tension and beautifully-composed shots.

Now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films, this nearly-lost film can be appreciated over one hundred years later.

Filmed in British Columbia, on the Pacific Coast, the film featured members of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe at a time where the practice of many of their customs was outlawed by the Canadian government (as was also experienced by tribes in the United States). In the making of his film, Curtis not only documented these traditions, but he gave the tribe an opportunity to practice them freely with the defense that they were making a movie.

The plot is the slightest clothesline for the majesty of the people themselves: their costumes, dances and deliberate lifestyle. Its native vision quest, romance and battles demonstrate how even in the very first feature films, the template was set for epic movies to follow, but I can think of nothing since that has captured the essence of tribal life so well.

All of the props were created with an eye to authenticity and used by natives who knew exactly what to do with them. Enormous canoes were created to be propelled in the water by men schooled in the traditional way of rowing. Costumes are much like those you will see hanging in a museum like the Burke in Seattle, Washington, but they take on an entirely new dimension when worn by the people who understood their meaning best.

Edward S. Curtis in a 1889 self-portrait
While the film can be enjoyed on a purely documentary level, there is also proof here that movies could be exciting and full of action over one hundred years ago, when filmmakers were still mastering the basics of a new medium. Without close-ups, jump cuts or extensive use of special effects, Curtis generates tension, drama and even a touch of romance.

It is thrilling to watch the dancers in their animal costumes, moving together confidently in perfect rhythm. The sight of three canoes, loading with dancing men advancing on the camera is an unusual one in the history of cinema and Curtis captures the energy of the group so that their passion is palpable to the viewer.

The restoration of the film must have been extremely difficult given the materials available. As source material, there were two heavily-worn, incomplete prints. As both were incomplete, several scenes had to be bridged with stills and image captures from existing film. Given all of that, I'm impressed by the final result.

While there are lots of scratches and damaged or missing film, the picture is of surprisingly decent quality. The gorgeous tinting does a lot to improve image quality. New intertitles are also tinted, each with a nice border in the style of traditional native art and in a font appropriate to the film's vintage.

The newly-recorded soundtrack is of a string ensemble playing the music originally composed for the film's release. It is sharp, clean and also does much to improve the quality of the film overall.

Filming of a scene, Curtis behind the camera

As is often the case with Milestone releases, the special features are of equal importance to the featured film. There's an interesting, and significantly shorter, version of the film with voiceovers that was released in 1973 called In the Land of War Canoes. I found that this version helped me to understand the original with a bit more clarity.

There are also several audio clips of traditional native songs, assorted documentaries, including films about Curtis, the restoration process and the recording of the score. I was especially interested to see the interviews with family members of the people featured in the film. There is also extensive modern-day footage of tribe members performing dances similar to those seen in the film.

It's an inspiring package, educational, entertaining and an exhilarating opportunity to see Native Americans dominate a film.

Many thanks to Milestone Films for providing a copy of the DVD for review.

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